Untamed energies from the 17th century: Life and Times of the Tat Man in Walsall

By Ben Miller | 12 December 2013

A play inside Walsall Museum next year will reveal a tradition stretching back to the 17th century, unleashing untamed energies through a set of carved heads

A photo of a male musician and actor sitting in a room surrounded by carved heads
Actor and musician Tony Barrett will be the Tat Man in Walsall© Glen Buglass
This Saturday, in a special Christmas open day, Walsall Museum will be introducing visitors to its Bayard’s Colts – a set of 17 carved heads which, from first being mentioned in 1670 until the apparent discontinuation of the ritual during the mid-19th century, were carried behind the town’s Mayor during processions to mark civic occasions and openings.

These are unusual and mysterious relics. In 1969, two of them reputedly fell from their place on the wall of the local Magistrates’ Court during a legal hearing, and were then transferred to the care of the museum after being found to carry woodworm infestations.

Having shone under the British Museum’s oracular A History of the World spotlight, their latest exposure arrives thanks to a £12,000 Arts Council grant which has helped the museum create a dedicated website, adult storytelling sessions and fun days. And working with director Glen Buglass, of Walsall Council’s Creative Development Team, local playwright David Calcutt’s decidedly less wooden drama will tell tales of the totems inside the museum next April and May.

“My first aim was to create a fully-rounded, large-than-life dramatic character who was capable of absorbing an audience for an hour or more of stage-time,” he says of Life and Times of the Tat Man.

“A character with whom they would engage and be enthralled by, and who would be able to draw them into his world.

“And this world that the Tat Man inhabits is a scrapyard, a place on the edge of things, one of those borderland places between the civilised world and the untamed world, the world of everyday reality and that of folktale, myth and legend.

“So the Tat Man, straddling and inhabiting both of those worlds, is himself a figure of those two worlds – the real, everyday figure, riding his horse and cart down our streets, collecting scrap and junk, and a figure out of legend and folktale, collecting stories, his rag-and-tat tales, and bringing them to us, the stories of our own hidden, dream-lives.”

Our hero, reveals Calcutt, is an outlaw (“always the most interesting of characters in literature and folklaw”), played by Tony Barrett, an actor with a knack for instrumentation.

“The character is closer to the raw, untamed life of our ancestors, and he’s able both to live that life for us, as kind of surrogate and to bring us a little closer to those raw, untamed energies that are vital to our existence as human beings.

“Again, he does this through the telling of stories, about the semi-mythic world he inhabits, and about himself as a semi-mythic character. This is the kind of character and world I have tried to create in writing the play.”

Calcutt says an important early realisation was the importance of horses in the Roma culture the Tat Man is a part of.

“Horses also play a significant role in many myths and folk-tales,” he observes.

“Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, for instance, and Odin’s seven-legged steed Sleipnir, and the semi-divine horse from French medieval legend, Bayard, who gives his name to the Colts.

“It seems to me that the horse is the living, physical embodiment of those untamed energies the Tat Man is concerned with, and the stories that he tells conjure these energies, these creatures of the wild, onto the stage and into the lives of the audience.

“Hopefully it will be entertaining, thought-provoking and moving, and will continue to reverberate with them long after the play has ended.”

The staves are, as Calcutt puts it, the “jewel and centrepiece” of the collection his play will temporarily be surrounded by. Come summer, the public should know a lot more about these ceremonial survivors of the centuries.

  • Bayard's Colts Open Day - Colts at Christmas takes place at Walsall Museum on December 14 2013. Drop-in sessions 10.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-3.30pm. Tat Man Tales will be performed on various dates during April and May, tickets £4. Email museum@walsall.gov.uk or telephone 01922 653116 for details.

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